Lockdown LALYs! The sequel ...
After a momentous year which spotlighted racial and social injustice, we want your help to make the 2021 virtual Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards our most inclusive and diverse yet, say Fiona Bawdon and Chris Minnoch.
LALY20 photos: Richard Gray – Rugfoot Photography
There’s a standing joke among the organisers of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, that the run-up to each year’s event will bring its own, unique moment of crisis, which could potentially derail the well-oiled machine that is Team LALY. In the 19 years that the LALYs have been running, we have always prided ourselves on maintaining swan-like calm, regardless how frenzied and panicked the paddling beneath the surface. It reached the point where, in the early stages of planning each year’s event, we would joshingly speculate about what This Year’s Crisis might entail. Bets have been known to be laid – although none ever paid out, as our predictions are never very accurate.
Certainly, we didn’t see the worldwide health emergency coming, which left us having to scrabble to reinvent last year’s awards ceremony from scratch. There we were in early 2020, happily planning our usual extravaganza in our usual central London venue; selecting canapes for 450-plus guests; pondering the finer details of name-badge production; wondering who we could dragoon into stuffing goody bags. Chris was looking forward to once again wielding the clipboard of power; Fiona was deciding which members of her family she would ‘volunteer’ for gopher duties at the ceremony.
It was all LALY business as usual – until the pandemic struck and turned the entire world upside down. Amid the very real shock, fear and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, one thing rapidly became clear: legal aid lawyers and the clients they serve would be among those bearing the brunt of it. We briefly debated postponing the ceremony until the autumn – this was when Boris Johnson was insisting we could take COVID-19 on the chin and power through it in three months. We rapidly decided against delaying – partly because no one believes Johnson, but also because we knew that last year, of all years, the legal aid community needed the boost that only the LALYs can bring sooner, rather than later.
Looking back: Team LALY in pre-COVID days
The show must go on
We decided to stick to the original 7 July date, but turn it into a virtual ceremony – and so the idea for the lockdown LALYs was born. Although we were making it up as we went along, some things were not negotiable. The event had to be worthy of the lawyers being celebrated; it had to be shown live with winners being announced in real time, rather than pre-recorded; and it had to retain the ingredients that make the LALYs so magical – including vivid accounts from the compère of how the work of the finalists transforms lives and hearing from the winners as their names are announced.
What we collectively achieved in just a few weeks, from a standing start and with no route map, was nothing short of miraculous. The ceremony went out live on YouTube
, with winners being streamed into the event to share both their delight at being honoured and their passion for the work. It was compèred by our regular LALYs host, the incomparable Anna Jones, with stalwart support from justice campaigner David Challen, whose mum Sally Challen spent nine years in prison for murder, before being released on appeal in 2019. David praised his mum’s legal team (including former LALY winner Harriet Wistrich) and added: ‘The fight for justice was more than worthwhile to get my mum back, to give voice to so many more victims and to help create more awareness of coercive control.’
Justice campaigner David Challen and regular LALYs compère, broadcaster Anna Jones, at LALY20
Other highlights for the 800 people who tuned into LALY20 included seeing Niall Murphy accept the inaugural Regional Legal Aid Firm award on behalf of Belfast-based KRW Law. Niall’s appearance brought home both the seriousness of the pandemic and the lure of the LALYs. He had narrowly survived a life-threatening brush with COVID-19, spending 16 days in hospital on a ventilator, and had been recuperating in Donegal. When Niall realised lack of broadband meant he wouldn’t be able to be streamed into the ceremony in the event KRW won, he had driven back to Belfast earlier in the day. It was humbling and cheering in equal measure to be able to see and hear him. Another very special moment was when Siobhan Taylor-Ward won the newcomer award. A delighted Siobhan was joined on screen by her young son, grinning from ear to ear, who nodded silently but emphatically when asked by Anna Jones if he was proud of his mum.
Siobhan Taylor-Ward with her son at LALY20
Just like the lawyers we celebrate, every member of Team LALY went the extra mile to give the legal aid profession the tonic it deserved last year. For the two of us, it was probably one of the most intense, nerve-wracking, exhilarating things we have done in our professional lives (so far). It was also fantastic fun.
If you missed the LALY20 ceremony, you missed a treat – but one of the joys of a virtual event is that you can still watch it
. The whole ceremony lasts just over an hour, or you can watch the highlights
in just three minutes.
Black Lawyers Matter
The pandemic wasn’t the only seismic event of 2020. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May last year triggered Black Lives Matter protests, which rapidly spread beyond the US, spotlighting racial injustice and challenging everyone to do more to fight racism and promote equality.
It felt like a wake-up call, including to us as organisers of the LALYs: a reminder that we need to do more to ensure the awards are at the forefront of recognising the immense contribution to the legal profession and to social justice made by Black and other ethnic minority lawyers. The accounts we heard on social media last year from some Black barristers of being mistaken for defendants in court also reinforced the importance of visibility and role models. The LALYs can play their part in challenging the idea of what a barrister or solicitor should look like by seeking out excellence in Black lawyers who would otherwise go unheralded.
We will, of course, be urging groups like the Black Men in Law Network
, the Black Barristers’ Network
and others to promote the LALYs and make nominations. But this is not a problem that is only Black lawyers’ to fix. That is why we are calling on all legal aid lawyers – particularly those in senior roles within their organisations, many of whom are white – to show how much they value their Black colleagues and help us make these awards the most inclusive and racially diverse yet. There are 11 awards categories (see box). We urge you to take the time to think if there is anyone in your organisation or that you have worked with, who deserves the kind of recognition that only the LALYs can bring – particularly those who are Black or from other ethnic minorities.
We also have a specific request of all our previous winners and finalists – to pay it forward. Just as your professional friends and colleagues took the time to show their respect and admiration for you and your work, please do the same by nominating an unsung peer or colleague, at any level, who inspires you.
Tune in for LALY21
For LALY21, we are going to do it all over again – although more calmly than in 2020. Despite the extra time we will have to prepare, and our hard-won learning from last year, no doubt there will be other crises, but thanks to our Team LALY colleagues, who love the awards and revere the professionals they celebrate as much as we do, we are as confident as we can be that the show really will go on.
Send in your nominations by 19 April; and do join us on 6 July.
LALY21 key information
Nominations close: 19 April 2021
We are seeking nominations in 11 categories:
1.Legal Aid Newcomer
2.Family Legal Aid
4.Legal Aid Barrister
5.Legal Aid Firm/Not-for-Profit Agency
6.Social Welfare Law
8.Regional Legal Aid Firm/Not-for-Profit Agency
9.Legal Aid Team
10.Disability Rights – new for 2021
Plus, the LALY judges will be making an award for:
Winners will be announced at a live ceremony, which will be free to attend, on 6 July 2021.